In the United States, do law enforcement officers actually plant evidence to make suspects look guilty? Crime films and television dramas use the “planted evidence” gimmick frequently, but how frequently do the police plant evidence in real life cases? Is it the rare behavior of just a few bad cops, or is evidence-planting a widespread, ongoing police practice across the country? Many criminal defense attorneys and other observers of the criminal justice system believe that evidence-planting is rampant, and plenty of retired cops have admitted publicly to planting evidence throughout their law enforcement careers. However, since last December, one remarkable crime story has once again placed the issue of evidence-planting by police officers up for public discussion.
Making a Murderer is a ten-part true crime documentary series that was released by Netflix in December 2015. Making a Murderer instantly seized – and held – the nation’s attention at the end of an acrimonious year when the U.S. criminal justice system was already being severely criticized, scrutinized, and condemned by many for lacking integrity. Making a Murderer chronicles in detail the compelling story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was wrongly sentenced to eighteen years in prison for a sexual assault. Avery was vindicated and released in 2003 when DNA evidence proved that he was innocent. That wrongful sentence alone would make a compelling documentary, but it’s only the introduction to Making a Murderer.
Upon his release from prison in 2003, Steven Avery brought a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against those Wisconsin law enforcement authorities responsible for his eighteen-year false imprisonment. As that lawsuit was pending in 2005, Steven Avery was accused by those same authorities of a young woman’s murder. He was arrested, tried, and in 2007, Avery was convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach. He was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Thanks to Netflix, that trial and verdict is perhaps now the most controversial since the O.J. Simpson trial two decades ago. Making a Murderer offers a powerfully persuasive argument that the police in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, planted evidence to strengthen their murder case against Steen Avery and to guarantee his conviction.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE REACTION?
Several famous attorneys and even some Hollywood icons are sounding off about the Avery case and are debating whether Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, also convicted of the same murder, are genuinely guilty. Even Netflix viewers who think that Avery committed the murder agree that there was egregious police misconduct in the case. Letters, petitions, newspaper commentaries, and blog posts have strongly condemned the actions of Wisconsin law enforcement officers in the Avery case, and more than 200,000 people have signed petitions demanding retrials for Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. Making a Murderer also explains why the filmmakers believe that evidence was planted to frame Steven Avery. The motives of the police officers would appear to have been money and vengeance.
After serving eighteen years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Avery filed a $36-million-dollar lawsuit in federal court against Manitowoc County, its former district attorney, and its ex-sheriff. The key evidence linking Steven Avery to the murder of Teresa Halbach was found by Manitowoc County Sheriff’s detective Lt. James Lenk and Sheriff’s Sgt. Andrew Colborn. They found a key to Ms. Halbach’s vehicle – that several earlier searches purportedly “missed” – in Avery’s bedroom. Lenk also was present at Avery’s garage weeks later when a bullet fragment was discovered after several earlier searches. Lenk is retired. He now lives here in Arizona, and he refused to speak with USA Today regarding the Steven Avery case and Making a Murderer.
Most viewers of Making a Murderer would tell you that it is an understatement to say that the murder prosecution of Steven Avery was “mishandled.” Because Avery had filed a legal action against the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office, the Teresa Halbach murder was supposed to be investigated by deputies from adjacent Calumet County. Nevertheless, the items “found” by Manitowoc County officers were allowed as evidence at Avery’s murder trial, despite Manitowoc County’s conflict of interest. The controversial evidence does not even match with or confirm any of the theories that prosecutors offered to jurors regarding the crime. Steven Avery was nevertheless convicted of murder, and on June 1, 2007, he was ordered to serve the remainder of his life in a Wisconsin state prison. In 2011, Avery’s appeal for a new trial was rejected by a state appeals court, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court also has refused to hear Avery’s case. He has retained new attorneys and a new appeal has recently been filed on Avery’s behalf.
HOW WIDESPREAD IS THE PROBLEM?
Is evidence planted only by some police departments? Does it happen only in murder investigations? Or is evidence-planting common and maybe even out of control? It happens in all fifty states. We know that evidence-planting happens in all parts of the country – and not just in murder cases – because federal officers have apprehended a number of local police officers for planting evidence, and the courts have convicted them. Four officers in Camden, New Jersey, for example, were prosecuted for evidence-planting in 2013. The cops involved failed to report drug seizures from suspects and instead planted those drugs on other suspects. The officers were convicted.
In 2009, police officers in Tulsa who planted evidence and stole cash from drug dealers were investigated by the FBI. One New York City police officer confessed in 2008 that he had planted drugs on innocent New Yorkers to help another cop make an arrest quota. Phoenix residents may remember a police officer named Richard Chrisman. A videotape released in 2010 showed the officer planting drug paraphernalia – a drug pipe – on a homeless Phoenix woman. Thankfully, Chrisman is no longer a cop in Phoenix. He was convicted of several misconduct-related crimes and sentenced in 2013 to seven years in prison.
Of course, the greater question is to what extent evidence-planting is practiced by law enforcement officers. No one can say how often or routinely the police plant evidence on suspects in this country or how many cops are involved in the practice. One researcher at Bowling Green State University, professor and former police officer Philip Stinson, has gathered an extensive amount of information about police misconduct and the practice of evidence-planting. Even after comprehensive research, Stinson concludes that the planting of evidence by police officers remains a “hidden” crime. “There’s not much we know about it,” Stinson admits.
WHAT SHOULD YOU DO IF YOU ARE FRAMED FOR A CRIME?
What should you do if you are accused of committing a felony or a misdemeanor and you are persuaded that police officers have planted evidence to incriminate you? It’s a very tough place to be. The claim that “I was set up” is the same claim made by multitudes of criminal defendants who are eventually proven guilty. If the evidence planted was narcotics, and you are not a drug user, you may need character witnesses who can vouch for you. You will also need the legal counsel of a good criminal defense lawyer, and in the state of Arizona, you’ll need to consult with an experienced Phoenix criminal defense attorney.
If a law enforcement officer’s DNA or fingerprints are found on a piece of evidence, and a suspect’s prints and DNA are not found, a good defense lawyer may be able to cast doubt on the authenticity of that evidence. Evidence-planting is considered a serious crime every state, and in Arizona, planting evidence is a Class Six felony. A conviction for evidence-planting in Arizona is punishable by a year in custody or by two years if the state can prove “aggravating” circumstances. Here is the precise language of Arizona Revised Statute § 13-2809(a) and (b):
A. A person commits tampering with physical evidence if, with intent that it be used, introduced, rejected or unavailable in an official proceeding which is then pending or which such person knows is about to be instituted, such person:
- Destroys, mutilates, alters, conceals or removes physical evidence with the intent to impair its verity or availability; or
- Knowingly makes, produces or offers any false physical evidence; or
- Prevents the production of physical evidence by an act of force, intimidation or deception against any person.
B. Inadmissibility of the evidence in question is not a defense.
If you are arrested and accused of committing a crime, and if you are convinced that law enforcement officers have planted or have otherwise arranged evidence to incriminate you, do not think that your circumstances are hopeless. However, whenever a suspicion emerges that evidence has been tampered with, a criminal case swiftly becomes complicated and quite challenging, so you must be represented by an experienced criminal defense lawyer who has worked successfully on similar cases. If you face any criminal charge, contact a good criminal defense attorney who will go the full distance to fight aggressively for justice on your behalf. In the Phoenix area or elsewhere in the state of Arizona, if you are arrested and charged with committing any crime, immediately contact an experienced Phoenix criminal defense attorney. The legal help you’ll need is here, but you must take the first step and make the call.